10/04/2012 08:24 am ET Updated Dec 04, 2012

Debating Clouds

I wasn't planning to do an analysis of last night's debate, figuring that the debate would be a draw or Pres. Obama would dominate Gov. Romney -- either of those outcomes would be unlikely to change the dynamic of the campaign. But... well, here we are.

Using frequency analysis, the word clouds below show the top 50 words used by both candidates during the debate, minus over 200 of the most common words in the English language such as "and," "are," "at," etc.

Word clouds won't help determine who won or lost the debate, but they sometimes yield unexpected insights into the candidates' performance.

The overall impression of Romney's word cloud is presidential, while Obama's looks like that of a challenger. Romney is talking about people and about issues -- the words that leap out are "people," "government," "Medicare," "taxes," "cuts," and "plans."

Gov. Mitt Romney

October 3, 2012, Presidential Debate

created at

Meanwhile, Obama just seems to be talking about Romney. Romney looks like he is advancing an agenda. Obama looks like he's playing defense.

Interestingly, much of the post-debate critique of Obama's performance was that he did not challenge Romney enough. And yet, the main focus of the President's word cloud is "governor" and "Romney" (mentioned 50 times and 44 times, respectively.)

Pres. Barack Obama

October 3, 2012, Presidential Debate

created at

More than half (54 percent) of the words in the candidates' word clouds are the same, which makes sense given that they were asked to speak about the same subjects. But the frequency with which those words were used was very different.

For example, Romney, who needed to address criticism that his policy proposals lack specifics, used the word "plan" 41 times, more than twice as often as Obama (19). In fact, "plan" was the third most frequent term in Romney's word cloud.

Both candidates spoke of the "people" often, but Romney said it 69 times, which has to be some kind of record, compared to Obama's 27 times (61 percent fewer). Romney also harped on "government" far more, mentioning it 33 times -- his fifth most frequent term -- to Obama's nine times.

Where the candidates' words differed was just as revealing. Part of Romney's effort to sound more substantive was to use specific dollar figures. As a result, "million," "billion" and "trillion" all show up in his word cloud.

Romney tussled with moderator Jim Lehrer on several occasions during the debate, as evidenced by the name "Jim" showing up among Romney's top 50 most frequently used words.

For his part, Obama had to demonstrate that he is more in touch with middle-class Americans and more relatable than Romney, and he achieved that in part by using terms such as "middle-class," "folks," "opportunity," "create" and "seniors," none of which appeared in Romney's top 50.

Incidentally, if it seemed like Romney was talking faster, he was. Obama spoke four minutes longer, but Romney managed to utter 271 more words -- 3.7 percent more than Obama.